Around the beginning of each October, I start thinking about NaNoWriMo. It’s like clockwork: right along with cooler weather, changing leaves, and stores heavily draped in Christmas decorations.
Pick a Project, Any Project
One problem. I wasn’t sure what to work on this year. After spending a million hours on the house move and another million at the day job, I hadn’t exactly put much effort into any fiction. In short, all my stories-in-progress sat exactly where they always sit: dangling in various states of incompleteness.
While trying to choose what method I would use to choose a project, a funny thing happened. The project selected itself: Winter’s Gate. I started this one back in 2010 and then picked it up again in 2012. I eventually dropped it for the same reason I drop every story: it wasn’t very good and I couldn’t figure out how to fix it.
But about halfway through October, something about it called out to me. “Hey, stupid!” it said. “What?” I replied. “Fix me!”
It’s a science fiction story, so I first had to fix the science. And I did, which boosted my confidence. However, that exercise left me with only a few days before November first—not a lot of time to fix the story.
And They’re Off!
NaNoWriMo 2016 began for me at midnight at a kickoff party in Austin. I stupidly used my laptop earlier that evening without plugging it in. So my battery was down to 19% by the time I arrived at the party. I thought, “Hmmm, I can probably squeeze an hour out of it.” But by kickoff time at midnight, it hit 3% and shut down.
Okay. No power. No story. I’ve had better starts.
I stayed until 1:30 in the morning anyway, scribbling on a pad of paper, just like writers did millions of years ago. I made a little progress. I also interacted with other writers and scored a bunch of leftover food from the potluck. I’ve had worse starts.
After that, the first few days of November went pretty well because I mostly rewrote the first few chapters that I’d already written. But by the time I got to the ten thousand word mark I was venturing into new and difficult territory. I had my beginning. I knew my ending. It was just that pesky ninety percent between those two points that was slowing me down.
Clearly I couldn’t go on. So I stopped, took stock of the situation, and defined a new way to win: cheating. Haha. No, I redefined winning as “coming up with a solid, end-to-end, gripping, likeable outline.” If I could do that in a month (something I hadn’t done in six years on this story), I’d call it a win no matter how many words it was.
So I started on the outline, but took a wholly new approach for me: I wrote the synopsis for the last chapter first. Then I wrote the epilogue. Then I wrote a pivotal middle chapter. Then something before that and another thing after that. I hopped around in a completely nonlinear fashion, writing puzzle pieces which I would then assemble into a coherent whole.
And it was extremely efficient doing it this way (instead of writing perfectly-worded, completely-finished chapters, in order). Because if I screwed something up (an implausibility or other such plot hole) then it was easy to fix when it was just a couple paragraphs. And since I would instantly jump from, say Chapter 15 to Chapter 5, it was easy to plant seeds exactly where I needed them, while the ground was still extremely soft.
It all pretty much came together on November 23. And surprisingly, I even had about 33,000 words down at this point. And here’s where I realized I could win if I cheated. Haha. Okay, yeah. Most of those words were meta-words. Not the story, but the story about the story. And often it involved two or more versions of a scene. If this were the final draft, I think thirty thousand of those words would be excised. But this is Draft Zero: where the author has to tell the story to himself first. So I didn’t delete anything. I didn’t scratch anything out. I just kept typing until I had built up a large pile of words. And, with a week left, I suddenly thought: I could probably start putting real words in with that 33,000 and get to the goal of fifty.
And that’s exactly what I did. I hit 50,277 words and got my third NaNo win in eight attempts. It was a strange and unorthodox journey, but I did it.
And I’m surprised too, considering. I actually spent most of the month on (surprise, surprise) getting the new house ready for Thanksgiving as well as the day job. So I packed all this work into early mornings and late evenings. (I’ll never understand why they chose November for this annual challenge. Me? I would’ve picked a month with thirty-one days and NOT one with a week-long traditional family obligation toward the end.)
Oh no. The end of NaNo is just the beginning. Draft Zero is a right royal pile of refuse. The story’s in there all right, it’s just buried in a jumbled mess. But I really finally feel like I have something viable.
Stay tuned! I should have something ready for everyone to read within the next one to seventy-two months.